In December 2016, I was tired. I felt dissatisfied—like I had failed to actively engage in my education. So when the opportunity arose for me to participate in the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights (PfIR), I seized it.
Mennonite Church Canada and Christian Peacemaker Teams together organized the PfIR. The Pilgrimage involved a 600 kilometre walk from Kitchener, Ontario, to Ottawa, in response to Call to Action #48 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It calls for churches to engage in public dialogue and action surrounding the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). So that’s what we did.
As we walked, we talked with churches about the UNDRIP, and what it means for our lives, our communities of faith, and this country. It was also an opportunity to push the government to adopt the UNDRIP through Bill C-262.
The Pilgrimage meant something different for each walker. Some were walking for specific people, some carried stories. For each of us, it was an opportunity to do our own inner and outer decolonization work.
For me, the Pilgrimage was an opportunity to learn in a new way, a way to reimagine the “classroom.”
I was given the opportunity to participate as an independent study course for the Winter 2017 semester.
Instead of a traditional university course, this independent study took me on a whirlwind of learning. From countless hours spent on the phone with churches arranging accommodations and food for walkers, to participating in many planning meetings with dedicated and experienced activists. From leading a group of people on a very long walk, to taking my own intentional steps as we journeyed to Ottawa.
There is a different sort of knowing that comes from active learning. I learned many practical community-organizing skills, but the learning went beyond that—it seemed to seep into my whole being.
When I sat in a circle with a Cree woman who wept because she couldn’t believe that there was a group of settlers who cared about Indigenous rights, I knew the brokenness of this land in a new way.
When we arrived exhausted at the doors of a church, to receive an enthusiastic welcome, copious amounts of food, and even a foot massage, I knew hospitality in a new way.
When I walked through the landscape, hearing the songs of the birds and the cars, seeing the beautiful Canadian Shield, and piles of garbage along the roadside, I knew the land in a new way.
When I arrived home to find that my home community had done a solidarity walk to show their support of the Pilgrimage and Indigenous rights, I knew the spreading of grassroots actions in a new way.
My teachers included my 87 year old friend Henry Neufeld, and my 10 month old friend, Junia, who both joined us for the whole walk. My faculty advisor, my co-planners, numerous authors, the many indigenous elders and activists that we met along the way—every person that I had the honour of walking with and meeting on this journey, and the land herself—they were all my teachers.
The learning was diverse and plentiful, and it continues. I am grateful to CMU for its courage to step outside conventional ideas of what university looks like. I will carry these learnings with me as I journey into my final year of studies and beyond.
Erin Froese is entering her fourth year in Environmental Studies at CMU this fall.